Every patient in Ireland has been assigned unique identifying number, in an effort to improve patient safety and data quality.

The Individual Patient Identifier went live in Ireland earlier this month and is now being using in electronic referrals to hospitals.

Much like an NHS number, the IHI is a national register of all patients, linked to their basic patient information such as name, sex, and date of birth and demographics.

Initially drawn for data by the Primary Care Reimbursement Service and Department of Social Protection, the IHI will be used in both health and social care services. It will not include any clinical records.

Richard Corbridge, the chief information officer at the Health Service Executive, said select hospitals and 30 GP practices would be first to start using IHIs internally this year. Other early adopters will include the epilepsy electronic patient record and the hospice electronic medical record, with the rest of the system expected to adopt it next year.

“This is probably the single largest patient safety initiative that the Irish healthcare system has deployed to date.”

Corbridge said he was mindful of the struggles that the NHS England had had promoting the use of the NHS number and there were a number of “carrots and sticks” to promote the adoption of the IHI, including the option to make it mandatory.

However, he was confident that there was strong buy-in from both health and social care.

“I think clinicians are way more bought into this than in the NHS [with the NHS number] 15 years ago. It’s been pushed as a patient safety initiative.”

“This is very much about patient safety and using information to stop mixing people up.”

This could help in the UK as well, as IHI is so similar to the NHS number that they could potentially be used across the countries in the future.

Seeding hospital system with the IHI would likely reveal some records duplication, but the time spent correcting records would be worth the effort in efficiencies and improved patient care, he said.

The IHI is a key part of the HSE’s ‘Knowledge and Information Strategy’ launched in May last year, which “outlines how integrated information and enabling technology will support the delivery of innovative, safe and high quality patient care”.

As well as reducing record duplication and errors, the IHI will also form the foundation for a planned national electronic health record across Ireland. Those plan are currently awaiting ministerial funding approval.

“The national health record is not a single database so this [the IHI] becomes the key to unlocking where that information is held in the health system.”

The groundwork for the IHI has been several years in the making, with the Health Identifiers Act passed in 2014 to allow for the system’s establishment.

The infrastructure for IHI, which operates on top of an Oracle Healthcare master person index, went live in September last year.

Earlier this year the privacy implications of the IHI went out for public consultation, with an assessment published earlier this month. The assessment outlined strategies to mitigate against the privacy risks identified, which included accidental data breaches, poor quality data, and the system being hacked.

“It should be recognised that there are also privacy advantages associated with the implementation of an Individual Health Identifier that should not be overlooked. For example, sharing patient information, which already happens, will become more reliable,” the assessment said.